Holy X-Men, Batman.
X-Men: First Class
Marvel and 20th Century Fox
Quality 16 and Rave
Rejoice, fans, for after the horrific bloodbath of 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and the enjoyable but utterly forgettable “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, the X-Men franchise is back and restored to its former glory.
Bryan Singer, who directed the brilliant “X-Men” and “X2: X-Men United,” returns to his roots behind the scenes by providing the story and producing “X-Men: First Class.” The result is distinguished enough to forgive Singer for his time apart from the mutants and hope that he never, ever, strays again.
Director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) breathes new life into the script, giving just the right amount of screen time to character development, action and even those obligatory nuggets of romance. Like its predecessors, the film doesn’t pretend to be strictly true to the comic books. Rather, it continues crafting the genesis of the mutant phenomenon in film form.
The film’s opening is identical to that of the 2000s series-opener, “X-Men,” featuring a young Erik Lehnsherr (newcomer Bill Milner) bending metal gates in World War II-era Poland as he is separated from his parents by a concentration camp. This sequence is just as effective as it was in the first film, even if it does save screenwriters the creative hassle of coming up with another kick-ass introduction.
After that and a brief stint at a certain Westchester mansion, the story unfolds in 1963 as Erik (Michael Fassbender, “Inglourious Basterds”) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, “Wanted”) find a host of other mutants to join forces with the CIA in order to thwart a powerful mutant bent on starting war amongst humans.
Ah, yes. That ruthless antagonist, Sebastian Shaw, is none other than the Nazi who incited Magneto’s initial bursts of mutant madness and is played by the rascally Kevin Bacon. As utterly bizarre as it is to see Bacon as the villain in a superhero movie, he plays Shaw with casual coolness — like a bratty billionaire used to getting what he wants — which makes the character just terrible enough to keep an audience invested in Eric’s vendetta against him.
This explains all of the once-and-future Magneto’s ingrained ideas about human inferiority and the brotherhood of mutants. Fassbender’s Magneto is perfection — and that’s saying something for a character only ever played by Sir Ian McKellan. He speaks four languages, goes through subtle emotions faster than most of us can chew a kernel of popcorn and, like his costars, he’s pretty damn easy on the eyes.
The supporting cast shines, particularly Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult (TV’s “Skins” in the UK) as Hank McCoy. January Jones (TV’s “Mad Men”) and Lucas Till (“Battle: Los Angeles”) provide some one-dimensional eye candy in the background, which is probably best.
It’s tempting, after seeing the power of this script and cast (pun intended), to want a franchise from our First Class mutants, since that’s the way successful superhero movies roll nowadays. But the best part of “X-Men: First Class” is how perfectly it completes the movie set. It stands alone while connecting Professor X and Magneto to the first three — I mean, two — films and answering the burning questions about their friendship, enmity and the origins of the iconic wheelchair and dorky-looking helmet.
After 11 years and countless other superhero movies to contend with, the X-Men franchise is as popular and relevant as ever — for at the heart of the movies and comic books lies the fundamental question of how humans treat those who stand out. Differences in culture, language and habit aren’t any weirder than blue skin or telepathy (though the latter two are undoubtedly much cooler).
Mutation, after all, is the key to our evolution. Though jarring, change can often be golden. “First Class” proves that the X-Men franchise is as adaptable as the characters who inhabit it. The new movie stands apart from its fellows in the best possible way.
As the film itself declares, “Mutant and proud.”